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My Newbie Experience Buying a Milk Cow – Part 2, by SaraSue

(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the article.)

A Calf is Born and Begins Milking

It’s been a bit of a rodeo, but I am undeterred. She was gentle as long as you didn’t touch her. LOL. She was sweet and beautiful as long as you didn’t interrupt her grazing on the grassy knoll. She learned to come into the stanchion, which is basically a structure you build to milk your cow in if you don’t have a barn set up to use. It has a “head gate” so that you can hold the cow’s head still, and therefore her body, for milking, health care, etc. The only reason on God’s green earth that she willingly came into the stanchion was because she’s a pig when it comes to a pan of grain. But, you can’t over feed ‘em when they’re pregnant or they will get fat and that will cause a more difficult birth. We walked a fine line until she had her calf. She got a little grain, she got cut up apples, as long as she tolerated me “handling” her. Every day we practiced entering the stanchion, locking the head gate, eating a bit of grain or apples, and “handling” her udders. She barely tolerated it, but we kept at it.

The day she had her calf was the most nerve-wracking experience next to birthing my own children. It was just her and me. I watched her all day and I could tell she was in labor, but there were no little hooves poking out; I didn’t see her water break; no visible signs other than her seemingly having contractions – something I would recognize. Late in the day I couldn’t see her so I went looking and found her laying at the bottom of the grassy knoll on her side. There were 2 hooves poking out, palms down – a good sign that the calf was in the right position. I could see a little tongue on top of the hooves – also a good sign that the calf’s head was in the right position. She seemed distressed and I started to panic.

To my inexperienced eye, the calf seemed very large (Guernseys usually are). I decided to call a neighbor for help and the local large animal vet. From what I had learned, you want to see progression every 20 minutes at this point and she seemed to be stuck. What I should have done was grab that calf and pull it when she pushed, but I was afraid to since she didn’t like being handled. I had never experienced anything like this in my life. I kept telling her she could do it and I prayed. Lo and behold, before the vet or any help could arrive, the cow pushed that huge calf out, and then put her head down as if she was going to die. I gently talked to her and the calf, who was obviously alive and started to breathe on its own. She had no idea what she’d just done. Then, the calf moved and she jumped up to care for it. The sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.

If you’ve had a baby, you know that moment when you see your baby the first time. That mama cow’s world changed in that moment. After making sure all the appropriate things were happening, I went to cancel all the help I’d called. When I got back the calf was shivering and mama looked exhausted and was just staring at the calf. Oh dear. I ran back to the house, got a bucket and poured some molasses in it, then filled it with water, grabbed a feed bucket and dumped grain into it, and ran back out to that pasture to see if I could perk mama up so she could keep going. Bless her heart, sincerely – she was exhausted. The fluids and calories were just the ticket.

She went back to tending to her calf and I got to witness the calf stand and nurse. Several people told me that she should never have been inseminated with a large breed for her first calving experience. I was told I should have pulled that calf immediately and not waited. I think I was chastised for any number of “mistakes” I made.

In my romantic notion of a mama cow and her first calf, I thought everything else would be a lot easier than how it started. But, no…. This cow wouldn’t let anyone near her calf for love, money, apples, or grain, and she wouldn’t leave it. I took buckets of water to her a couple of times and a little grain. She finally realized that she could leave her calf to graze and get a drink, but she carefully hid her calf in the brush each time. After a few days had gone by, the calf was bounding about and doing whatever she wanted, much to mama’s chagrin. Mama would quietly bellow and then lead the calf to a shady spot out of view of the rest of the farm. The calf would bound back out. Mama is finally coming to terms with the fact that no one is going to kill her calf.

This is why, I have come to learn, experienced family cow owners, and definitely dairymen, separate the calf from it’s mama right away. It’s to break that first deep bond between mother and calf that makes a mama cow dangerous. A friend relayed to me that a family member went to pick up a newborn calf, and that mama cow put her head down and then tossed that person across the stall. Fortunately, no horns were involved. I thought about separating the calf, but decided against it, even though I was told I could milk out the colostrum and feed it to the calf via a bottle. I thought to myself how difficult it would be for one small person, me, to try and pick up a 100+ pound calf! Or, trying to halter that calf and drag it away from a seriously intent mama cow! Or convince mama to leave the calf, halter or not. No. I couldn’t do it alone. I would just have to let mama and baby be together until her hormones calmed down enough for me to touch her calf.

The next problem I encountered was seriously engorged udders of a mama Jersey cow, designed to produce 4-6 gallons of milk each day. The first day in the stanchion, the next morning after calving, was a rodeo. She came in alright, wolfed down her grain, peed and pooped in protest, kicked, whipped me with her tail, then busted out of the head gate. She suddenly remembered her calf and wanted to get back to it right away. I scarcely had time to wash her udder and teats when she started backing out with force. I let her go, but I told her “we’re going to do this twice a day until you calm down”. So, we did, and she has calmed down quite a bit, even leaving her calf for hours at a time.

All the advice I have been given seemed impossible for me to do. So, rather than giving up, sitting down on the milking stool and crying, I determined that we would keep at it until it worked. Each day I washed her udders and expressed milk from each teat by hand before the rodeo started. Each day she protested, but eventually stopped busting her way out as she had learned that I would let her out when we were done. Most of the milk has spilled on the ground.

As I write this, the calf is one week old and racing around like there’s no tomorrow. Last night was the first time mama cow came into the stanchion, did not protest one bit, and did not worry about her calf. As a bonus, and her way of thanking me for my patience, she let her milk down and it was literally streaming out of her teats. I gave her lots of affection and thanked her for giving back. The electric milking equipment arrives today and we will again have to practice a new routine. Since my barns do not have electricity, the plan is to string a couple of long extension cords out to the compressor from the house. The compressor will be loud and mama cow will have to adjust to another set of circumstances, be able to relax, and allow me to attach the system to her teats. I expect some kicking, more spilt milk, and more practicing.

In closing, I do not regret my decision, but this first week was exhausting and stressful. Knowledge and Consistency are the keys to getting through the process even when you doubt yourself. I knew what problems might arise for a Jersey (mastitis, grass tetany, milk fever, etc.) because I had studied up in advance. I treated her for a couple of weeks with a preventative dose of CMPK (with high levels of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins D & E) to keep her from getting milk fever. She has high magnesium minerals/salt out as free choice to prevent grass tetany.

Mastitis has not been a problem for her, most likely because that big calf kept her relieved and nursed on all four teats. I went ahead and had a large order of dairy ration delivered because heavy milkers, such as Jerseys, require more than just grass to produce high volumes of milk (some for the calf and some for the family). I wasn’t able to locate a local grain mill in hopes of formulating an organic corn/oats/barley mix or her, but I plan to. In these times of shortages, I have to be thinking about what I can grow for all my animals if feed becomes unavailable or too expensive – feed costs have been going up weekly! I see lots of dairy products for myself and my family in the near future. What a blessing and a privilege.